Scenes from a Mindfulness Retreat: The Work

Part two of a four-part series.  You can read the introduction here.

One of the things I think those of you who have been on more traditional retreats would find most unusual about the mindfulness retreat is how interactive it was.  There were no long periods of silent meditation, broken by occasional meals, dharma talks and work periods.  Instead, the three daily practice sessions were organized into series of exercises, nearly all of which included dyad or small group discussions and large group talks.  Over the three days of the retreat I got to work one-on-one or in small groups with nearly all of the 30 other participants, sharing at a very fundamental level what was going on in our bodies, minds and hearts.  These exercises were very much like the ones I have described in my pieces about the Friday night drop-in sessions which are also run by the UW Health Integrative Medicine program.  These discussions were not about rehearsing the sordid details of our personal lives, however.  They were a chance for us to share how various physical sensations, emotions and thoughts arose and changed in our awareness as we responded to whatever exercise we had just engaged in.

As I’ve written before, one of the primary effects of sharing at this level is the very visceral realization that everybody’s life is pretty much the same.  We all share frustration over the refusal of life to be the way we want it to be; we all struggle with sickness, aging, loss, anger, helplessness, grief and death; we all long for love and acceptance, especially our own love and acceptance.  We sit before each other, our humanity fully on display, but rather than feeling either repelled or vulnerable, the effect, for me anyway, is to feel seen and accepted, and to feel accepting and loving, in a way that I have seldom experienced.


The use of mindful movement is a core MBSR strategy for reinforcing the sense of embodiment, for being mindful of the body whose wisdom we so often ignore.  So our sessions would often begin with movement: standing and lying yoga, simple tai chi moves, even some qi gong gestures.  It was clear from looking around that many of my fellow participants were much more familiar with yoga than I was, and had the physiques to prove it.

I felt a little self-conscious at first at how big, clumsy and stiff my middle-aged body felt.  Closing my eyes helped.  It also helped that the movements were simple, and that the emphasis was not on mastering the forms of asanas but on feeling into the sensations of the body stretching and balancing, and how those sensations changed as we came to rest.   I soon discovered that yoga made my back feel better and seemed to wake me up, and that I felt calmed and centered by the graceful flowing movements of tai chi.  After three days I could notice that I was more limber than when I started, that my body flowed more naturally along the floor in corpse pose.  On returning home, I found myself motivated to incorporate 20 minutes of floor yoga in my morning sitting practice, which seems to help me be more comfortable as I sit and more easily drop into the silence of my sensory awareness.

Mindful Listening

I am sitting on a mat on the floor across from Angela.  We’re asked to pick a speaker and a listener.  The speaker is asked to bring to mind someone they really admire; when the tingsha rings, the speaker is to begin talking about that person’s admirable qualities, while the listener engages in mindful listening.

It’s a practice I was familiar with from the Friday night sessions.  One’s intention is to stay with one’s sensory experience of that person – the sound of their voice, their facial expressions, their body language, and the sensations and emotions that arise in your own body as you pay careful attention to the speaker.  If you get caught up in thoughts, especially evaluations and predictions, you simply use the breath and the pressure of gravity on your body to come back to the present moment and refocus on the speaker.

Angela’s posture became more upright and relaxed as she spoke about someone whose free-spirit, intelligence and loving nature she admired.  She placed her hands beneath her chin and her elbows on her thighs, making a stable and integrated double triangle of her body.  Her voice was steady and self-confident, but her brow was a little bit furled – this was a relationship that was not always easy for her, I felt.

Then it was my turn to speak.  I brought to mind a good friend, and talked about her sense of humor, kindness, loyalty, cheerfulness and courage in the face of adversity.  It felt warm and relaxing to remember her and connect with my caring feelings toward her.

Now we alternated again.  This time, we were supposed to imagine someone we had a really difficult time with – and speak about qualities of theirs that we admired!  A groan went up from the group – we had all been readily willing to speak about our negative reactions to these disagreeable people, but this was going to be tough!

Angela was really working.  Her body folded in on itself tightly, her brow furrowed and knit and her mouth contorted as she struggled to say nice things about someone she didn’t like.   Whereas she had shared warm, human qualities about her admired person, the best she could say about her difficult person was that he was professionally very successful and financially very well-off.

When it was my turn, I certainly felt no warmth or connection to my difficult person – just tension in my chest and forehead as I called him into memory.  As I spoke, other than a couple platitudes about his intellect and professional standing, I found myself largely attempting to sympathize with various formative life situations I imagined might have been responsible for making him such a son of a bitch.

Now it was time for Angela and me to share what we were experiencing while were speaking and listening to each other.  Although it was not part of the instructions, we both spontaneously offered each other guesses about who the other person’s admired and difficult persons were – and we both guessed comically wrong.  This might have been the biggest insight I gained from this exercise – I felt I had been trying my best to empty my thoughts and be fully open and empathetic with my partner, and yet my guesses about who she was talking about were fully informed by my own preconceptions and memories of past experiences.

Afterward we rejoined the big circle and shared our experiences.  The contrast between the openness and connection I felt with my admired person, and the tension and self-preoccupation I experienced while imagining my difficult person, turned out to be the common experience of the group.  All of us struggled in the imagined presence of our difficult ones to see them as people who might be lovable  –in other words, to see them as people.  It was clear that the reflex of holding the unwanted off,  the inability to see it in any other terms than those of our own aversion, was strong for us.

There was a glimmer of hope from one of the participants.  “At first it just seemed too hard.  I just couldn’t get past my anger at this person to allow myself to think about their good qualities.  So I just spent a few moments letting myself feel what I was feeling.   I was angry – no use pretending otherwise.  The exercise got a little easier, then.”

Experiencing Shared Humanity

We were invited to pick a partner and sit facing them.  I was sitting next to June, and with the exchange of a smile we shifted our chairs to face one another.

The first instruction was to look carefully at our partner’s face and try to remember it.  We were sitting with our knees only a foot or so away from each other; gazing so intimately into the face of a stranger felt uncomfortable, but June’s eyes twinkled and she smiled kindly.  Next, closing our eyes, we were to keep our partner’s face in our minds as we began to internally recite metta phrases for them.

This was different from any metta practice I’d done before.  Having just gazed intently at June’s face, her visage burned brightly in my imagination;  and though my eyes were closed I was intently aware that she was sitting right there.  The effect for me was a strong and immediate sense of connection and warmth — how much more vivid this was than imagining absent people far away!

As the activity came to a close, we were reminded that, just as we had been sending good wishes to our partner, our partner was there sending the same wishes to us.  A shift happened;  I felt an embodied sense of not only being the source of loving kindness but being the receiver as well.  This occurred not as some intellectual concept but as experiencing the heartspace, not as something enclosed, but as a window shared between us.

We opened our eyes and looked at each other again.   Once again we exchanged smiles, this time with a kindness and poignancy that hadn’t been there before.  June and I spontaneously reached for each other’s hands.

 Working with the Unwanted

We were invited to select from among the smooth stones that had been placed around the centerpiece. A shiny grey stone about the size and shape of an egg drew my attention; I picked it up and returned to my cushion.

The invitation next was to visualize a difficult situation in our lives in as much detail as we could, and to feel into the physical and emotional sensations that arose as we did so.   Reflection on an ongoing family frustration was enough to bring up the physical irritation in my lower abdomen that always accompanies fear and anxiety for me.  Now, we were to hold the stone close to our body, and try to imagine the difficult sensations flowing out of our bodies and into the stone.  I was surprised at how graphically I was able to imagine this – the tension left my gut and seemed to flow through my fingers and enter the little stone.  Finally, we were invited to handle the stone gently and see if we could investigate it with curiosity and friendly attention.

I am aware, reader, that you may be rolling your eyes at this point; and as I reread what I’ve written the implicit silliness of it is not lost on me.  But I will tell you that, as I stroked the smooth surface of my stone and examined the whorls of its texture, the gesture took on a poignant meaning.  Just as the little stone was outside me, not myself, so that familiar stone of tension in my gut was not mine, not me, not myself.  And because I could observe it from a distance, small, misshapen and vulnerable, it was possible to approach it not as a catastrophe to be avoided or abolished, but to hold it in the larger space of my awareness with compassion for its suffering.  The idea of befriending my own suffering – an absurd, unimaginable thought for me once – suddenly became doable.

That stone rides around in my briefcase now, and when stress or frustration arise in me, I think about that little gray egg, and it is easier for me to hold the suffering lightly and offer myself some kindness.

* * * * *

Engaging in this kind of practice continually with the same group of people day in and day out created a continually intensifying feeling of bonding among us, as individuals and as a group.  I didn’t get to know the life details of more than a few of my fellow retreatants – after all, when we were not in these exercises we spent our time in silence.  That didn’t seem to matter; by the final day of the retreat I felt such a sense of friendliness and compassion for these people who I’d never met before and who were still largely strangers to me.  And through them, I could feel an open-heartedness that seemed as if it could really embrace all beings everywhere.